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The Fishermen of Chiloé

Fisher Man

For fishermen the poisonous algae brings almost certain unemployment and a hungrier family to feed. (Photo credit: M. Caniggia) See photo gallery

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Within the first week about 1000 people were sacked. All of the collection of harvest from shore simply collapsed. That was when the processing plants started to fire people.

Chilean fisherman Mr. Mario Chigani knows too well the effects of a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) outbreak, after the Island of Chiloé was hit in January 2002. This billion-dollar fishing region sits some 1000km south west of Santiago. The poisonous microscopic algae shutdown this key fishing region and wreaked havoc on its costal community.

"When the closures were enforced the processing plants could not work for several weeks. First they started firing people on informal contracts, like workers who were paid on a daily basis. Some businesses went bankrupt. A concrete floor is the only thing left of one processing plant," said Mr. Chigani who heads Chiloé´s Association of Small Fishermen.

"People are not rich here," he says. "So when it happened they could not buy things they needed. Like food."

Health authorities shut the Island's coastal waters for 80 days, and some particular shellfish beds for nine months. Seafood is one of Chile´s biggest export earners, racking in US $90 million per annum alongside a $30-million domestic market. The forced shutdown cost $186,000 for every day Chiloé´s waters were closed.

The Island was declared a disaster zone. Truck drivers had no fish to transport, hotels emptied as tourists cancelled their seaside vacations and street vendors were left with nobody to buy their thick, hand-knitted socks.

Chiloés´ 130 thousand community has molded its livelihood to the sea. Many became sick from eating toxic shellfish. Three died.

"The community had never seen this before, so people were either unaware or did not believe in the phenomena," Dr. Ramon Andrade, Head of the Environment Department, Chiloé Hospital, said.

He recalls one clash between health authorities and fishermen on a beach. A local television network filmed the fight. The authorities wanted to impound the fishermen´s catch. In front of the cameras, a fisherman bit into a mussel to prove it was safe. Minutes later his lips, tongue and mouth went numb and he was rushed to hospital.

"The quality of the relationship between man and sea has changed," says Mr. Mauricio Caniggia, who works for a team from the University of Chile monitoring HAB. With support from the IAEA, they will use a nuclear technique - the Receptor Binding Assay (RBA) - to research, detect and communicate HAB outbreaks in region.

"For the first time the commodities that Chiloé´s people have commercialized and eaten were contaminated. For the first time in history, someone had to tell them whether things could be eaten or not. And that´s very difficult," Mr. Caniggia said.

Mrs. Russie Luengo is a shellfish farmer. She doesn't yet know the exact impact the 2002 HAB outbreak will have. It hit when they were "seeding" - beginning to grow a new crop of shellfish. Come harvest time she will know if the size and quality of her shellfish are affected. It is an anxious wait for all of Chiloé's shellfish farmers.

Mrs. Luengo says she is fed up with blanket closures imposed by health authorities. She realises they are doing their job with limited tools. Chiloé's bays are vast, its coastlines stretch for miles. She is well aware the toxic algae might have contaminated one area but left another shellfish bed unharmed. Mrs. Luengo knows the sensitive RBA technique can detect the poisonous algae at levels that the current method cannot. She is impatient to see it implemented.

Mr. Chigani echoes her sentiments. "We have to prepare for the next fire. We need technical cooperation to better monitor where the problem is, when it appears, and when it disappears," he said.

Scientist, Dr. Benjamín Suárez-Isla feels their frustration. He has seen firsthand the benefits the RBA brings.

Next: The Scientists of Santiago »